There’s a story in all of us… and for some, there are many. To be a filmmaker, is to know a great story. You need to believe in the story from the roots to the leaves. We only see 60 -180+ mins… of a film but the ambition, the gumption, the know-how, the fortitude, confidence and passion are all blended together when you consider making a feature film. Assuming… you’ve made a few short films before jumping into the fire. I’ve never made a feature film – but it’s on my bucket list and I do envy others that have had the moxie to pull it off. It’s not an easy task to translate images to words, to talk to actors and provide the motivation for the scene, to watch the clock and yell Action and Cut!… but for some of us, we love it till the end of days. After all, not everyone can be a filmmaker. Pure adrenaline, micro-managing, wearing so many hats that you forget who you’re working for… You! I’m convinced that nobody gets into the film business for the money, we just want to share a great story – that everyone needs to hear! I’ve seen films that can paint a character so convincing, you’re willing to change your life, your contributions to society… because it tapped into part of your personal history, your secrets or your present situation. Films are magical and the people waving that wand behind the camera are talented, they’re visionaries, they’re storytellers and they’re… women!
When you watch a film, can you tell if it’s been written or directed by a woman? I don’t think so… let’s just focus on the story. If you can appreciate art, then you can appreciate good filmmaking. One outstanding filmmaker that I’ve recently had the tremendous pleasure of meeting, was Leslie Ann Coles.
Leslie is a filmmaker, founder and executive director of the Female Eye Film Festival (FeFF). She is an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker who works with both scripted and non-scripted material and has worked in a variety of genres, including shorts and features, television, documentary and interactive digital media. Leslie recently released an interactive digital media (IDM) companion app with her multi-award-winning feature documentary “Melody Makers,” which was released in 2019. In 2021, Telefilm Canada awarded her Development support for two feature film projects which Coles is writing and directing. Most recently, Canada Council for the Arts awarded her a Creation Grant to direct and produce her short film, “The Curtain”, also written by Coles. She is also an alumna of the Women in the Director’s Chair program. Leslie has dedicated 18 years to modern dance as a choreographer/performer and arts educator before transitioning from the stage to the screen in 2001 with her debut film, ‘In the Refrigerator,’ which she wrote, directed, and starred in. It screened at 35 international film festivals and garnered 13 awards: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Short Film, Best Film, Best Debut Filmmaker, Best Avant-Garde, and the Grand Jury Award: Filmmaker in an Acting Role. She has been making films ever since!
The festival has been ongoing but this weekend is showcasing the best of the best on TIFF’s platform, so please take a look-see and help support amazing films brought to you by amazing women filmmakers.
I had an outstanding time talking to this incredible artist living in Woodbridge, Ontario – just north of Toronto, and here is a glimpse of that conversation…
HNMAG “It’s a pleasure to meet you. How have you been?”
LESLIE “It’s been crazy – we really hit the ground running this year. We weren’t sure if we were going to pivot to a digital landscape or wait until later in the spring. We might still deliver some films outdoors with social distancing later in the spring… but in the event we can’t we’ve decided to move forward. We’ve had such great films and within the film festival landscape, a film’s shelf life is only 2 years. We’ve decided to forge courageously ahead and became a third-party partner festival to TIFF in 2019 after being invited, which we were very excited about. We attended our inaugural in March of 2020 and there were rumblings of Covid that weekend. We told them we’d like to come back, so they gave us some space on their digital platform and we’re excited about that. We have a great line-up of films on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Digital Bell Lightbox, the last weekend in March.”
HNMAG “As the executive director of The Female Eye Film Festival (FeFF), you must screen so many films. How many would you bring to the festival?”
LESLIE “We preview approx. 2500 films per year from around the world and we’ve really grown, to be known as the festival to go to – specifically for female directors. I’m not supposed to formally announce it until April, but for 9 consecutive years, we’ve been voted one of the top 50 film festivals in the world that is worth the entry fee – by MovieMaker Magazine, which is one of the oldest trade magazines in the industry. The interesting thing about this year, we’re launching all the films on TIFF’s platform on March 26, the entire delivery is very different. We were only able to have 8 features on TIFF’s platform, because they’re so busy and we also have 2 programs of Shorts. Encore will be delivering Canadian films and we launched tonight (March 7) for free worldwide. From there, we move to Friday the 12th – 14th for a weekend of films and then the following weekend will also have another weekend of films followed by the last weekend of films from March 26-28th. It’s interesting, because we’re dealing with geo-blocking and all the films on the TIFF’s site will be up for the duration of the 3 days. Originally, they were giving us 2 short film programs (5 films/program) but I asked them if I could show more films and they agreed to that. There are now 8 short films in the North American program and 10 films in the International Film Program. We have 8 feature films that are International and 1 that is Canadian – Fall Back Down, by Sara B. Edwards out in Vancouver.”
Leslie continued to describe the tremendous generosity of TIFF, “In terms of accommodation and how they worked within their program grid to line up the films, bar-none, it is spectacular! They are truly the best venue we have ever had. Having been a nomadic film festival for over 18 years, Toronto has the most film festivals per capita in the world, with over 105 festivals per year.”
We continued to discuss and compare festivals that each of our cities host every year. Considering we both live in 2 of the most culturally diverse cities in Canada, we were both in agreement, that more culturally diverse film festivals help us to have a better understanding of the world. Leslie does believe cinema is instrumental in changing the world and it does have a huge social impact – I couldn’t agree more!
HNMAG “You became a member of the Writers Guild of Canada in 2019 and the Directors Guild of Canada in 2020. Congratulations on that!”
LESLIE “It’s pretty interesting – my screenwriting and filmmaking took a bit of a backseat to festivals for a number of years. I was quite busy and wasn’t focusing on my own work. I had decided that it was time to get back into my own creative projects. I received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts a few months ago for a short film that I wrote and will be directing, I’m also acting in it. It’s called The Curtain and I’ll be shooting it this summer. Telefilm Canada has also just approved me for development for 2 screenplays that I’m writing. One of them is a Western called, Soiled Dove and the other is in the treatment stage. I had optioned the story and am writing the screenplay for that. During Covid, I’ve been honing my craft and getting back into scripted screenwriting. My last film was a documentary, Melody Makers and it took me 8 years to complete; it was released in 2015. I’m getting back into my world of filmmaking and it feels great!”
HNMAG “I had read about your documentary Melody Makers, which tells the story of the rise and fall of the magazine. What spawned your interest in the subject?”
LESLIE “I met the photographer some years after he’d immigrated to Toronto in the late 80’s… and I’d met him in 1996, we became friends. There was a studio space in the building, which was an artist – live/work space. His name is Barrie Wentzell and he shot for Melody Maker Magazine from 1965 – 1975 in the UK. This magazine was the forerunner to Rolling Stone. He’s a very humble and very articulate inspiring human being that always intrigued me with his stories. I knew at some point I was going to turn the camera on him. As we became friends and as I got to see the archives, he gave me incredible access into his world of photography. As we were filming the archives, the negatives, the photos. It was so interesting because he’d go into his boxes of negatives and contact sheets. He was seeing stuff he’d never seen before… or printed.”
HNMAG “I had read that the film had won many awards?”
LESLIE “Yes, I’d won multiple awards for it. There was Best Director, Best Documentary, I can’t remember the rest but they’re in my office, in the house.”
HNMAG “The western, Soiled Dove – can you tell me the year it is set in and the significance of that year?”
LESLIE “It’s set back in 1873, because that was the year of the suffragette/women’s movement. I work and have been working as a crisis support worker and violence against women – on call for 13 years within the Indigenous community, and I continue to do that. I think this story came from my experience of working on the front lines of violence against women; I started picturing this character and this posse of women outlaws that ride out into the Wild West rescuing women and children from violence and oppression, before they repatriate them to a town called Soiled Dove. The protagonist is a god-fearing outlaw, whose daughter was murdered. She is the founder of the town. There’s a lot of humour in it and I’ve received over 9 or 10 international finalist screenwriter awards for it, including The Page. What’s very cool, is the feedback on my action scenes. There were a couple producers and others sharing my script, that were so impressed with the way I could track action. I told them I was a modern dancer for 18 years before making films. I used to choreograph too, so I thought I might be able to track movement. I have a strange visual mind that works well with that.”
HNMAG “Would you consider yourself a visual writer?”
LESLIE “Yes I would say so… although, I’m an intuitive writer and with the training I’ve received over the years through Corey Mandell out of LA, I’ve become more of a conceptual writer as well. I’ve really strengthened my skills in terms of structure. I have the intuitive part down; I write from the voice of characters and I understand all of that. In terms of structure and story design… I’ve really grown, under his mentorship.”
HNMAG “What caused you to switch gears and transition from professional dancing to filmmaking?”
LESLIE “There’s a couple of answers – I have 2 small children and I was separating from my marriage. I thought about continuing dancing… but there really isn’t any money in it (laughing). Dance is the lowest scale of pay – out of all the arts. I needed to make better money to raise my 2 children, so I told myself I’m going to become an independent filmmaker. I transitioned into acting first and was given full ACTRA membership based on my reputation as a performer. I looked at all the roles available for women and thought it was grim. I had to start writing and creating my own work, cause I’d always done that. It was the time I’d written my first film, In the Refrigerator, which is on Youtube – it was my first film. It won a lot of awards Internationally for best debut, best filmmaker in an acting role, and it really launched me, it was great. I was invited by the Academy to screen it in Santa Monica at the Laemmle for the Oscars. It had won so many awards and it was back in the day when they invited you.”
HNMAG “Since the inception of FeFF, how much change have you seen in the film industry, in terms of more women filmmakers and the roles they play in film and TV?”
LESLIE “I honestly cannot believe the change, particularly in the last decade, but even more so, in the last 5-6 yrs. One of the reasons I started this festival was because of the lack of women I would see at a film festival. I’d find 3 or 5 among 30 male directors. It raised the question… are there no female directors or are their films not getting programmed? We started seeing much more women being funded for their films. Telefilm launched a micro-budget program years ago, which was off the back of a meeting that took place in St. Johns, Newfoundland, involving the Female Eye, Women in the Director’s Chair, Vancouver Women’s Film Festival, Women in View, along with other lead international screen based organizations. We came up with a proposal for Telefilm and Ontario Creates, to address gender equity with our public funders. It encouraged some changes, in terms of who was submitting for funding and who was receiving the funding. Women really fell short, in terms of the funding they were given to have a writer do a polish on a script, to write a script or make a film; we’ve come a long way from getting 500 films submitted every year to seeing it growing alongside more women’s film festivals around the world. The Flying Broom in Turkey has been around for 28 years. La Coitat, in France is the mothership of women’s film festivals and it was the first. There’s so many more festivals popping up now… we’re seeing more of that, more films and more funding going toward women. In addition, there is another movement going on to address the issue of racialized communities, BIPOC communities and more support for more marginalized communities, which is great. I have noticed a huge difference in all those areas.”
Leslie is an incredible advocate for women filmmaking. Although filmmaking is an art form, Leslie continued to explain some differences you might spot when watching a film written from the female perspective. “Women treat sex and violence differently. There’s nothing gratuitous, there’s nothing they shy away from and it doesn’t favour the male gaze – it’s more subtle in the execution. FeFF’s tagline used to be Female eye flicks, not just for chicks! We wanted to let people know that these films are for everyone. A filmmaker makes a film for a broad audience, we don’t think about gender. Someone in marketing had asked me, if I had to say something very succinct about the films you show at the Female Eye Film Festival, what would it be? I answered… regardless of the duration of the film or the genre, they’re always honest and they’re not always pretty. They said, ‘that is your tagline!’ Always honest, not always pretty.”
HNMAG “Do you ever see yourself trying your hat at TV?”
LESLIE “I do actually. I’m cultivating a pilot and I’ve written the first draft for a series. It’s a 1-hour comedy and it’s a limited series.”
Incidentally… Leslie’s feature debut screenplay, Soiled Dove placed in the quarter-finals of the prestigious Page Screenwriting contest, amongst the top 10% of 8,000 entries worldwide. She is a wordsmith, a storyteller, a very charming guest and a talent worthy of great recognition. Leslie Ann Coles has been a champion for women’s films since launching out of that starting gate and she is miles ahead…